Reviewed by Lars Palm
Let’s begin by quoting a poem:
I run         jog          I tarry        rise
I come          close          move away
I moan          pant          fall quiet
I storm          I rain
I weep          I laugh
A woman in the feast of her ecstasy
thronged by a man’s host of angels.
This is poem # 9 from the book I Look to You by Maram al-Massri, the second of the books from which poems were selected for this volume. The second stanza is a perfect example of the art of murdering a poem; it of no use whatsoever. In fact, when I read it, it took the pleasure out of the first stanza as well.
I recall John Ashbery being interviewed for Swedish radio in the mid-1990s. He was asked how he knew a poem was finished and he replied that he knows a poem is finished when he’s reached the point where whatever else he writes turns out bad and needs to be removed. He also could have said that keeping the bad parts of a poem could easily ruin the good parts of it as well. This is exactly what, to me, is the matter with the poem above. And, let me be blunt about it and get it over with now, I don’t think this volume should have been published. Or let me put it this way: had I been an editor and received this manuscript I would have rejected it rather promptly. Or maybe I’m just not the reader this book needs, whoever that might be.
Maram al-Massri is a poet in her fifties, born in Syria, now living in France. A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is her first book in English, translated by Khaled Mattawa. It is also the title of the first (of two) books from which the selections were made.
What we have here are 142 small poems concerning, love, desire, abandon, the masculine and the feminine written in short, spare lines, originally sequenced as a kind of narrative, although the narrative lines get ruptured when poems are selected for translation. Al-Massri relies heavily on a few key words, which she tries to charge with as much meaning as possible; she also relies on paradox, a longtime poetry classic from Turkey and eastward, and on the technique of taking two fairly straightforward images and adding to them a conclusion that shall give the preceding images some extra depth, as in # 42 of A Red Cherry:
a man will go out
to look for
to satisfy the secrets of his desires.
a woman will go out
to look for
a man who will make her
mistress of his bed.
predator and prey will meet
they will exchange roles.
This poem may in the original have virtues that the translation doesn’t have. I’m thinking here of things like alliteration, that would turn it into something more than the plain or, rather, flat statements that we’ve see in English. Which brings us to the problems of translating from the Arabic. First, it is usually done, at least into western languages, for readers who can’t even read the alphabet the original text is written in. This puts extra emphasis on the demand that the translation be a self-reliant poem, because most of the readers can’t really go back to check with the original. Second, translators from the Arabic are often heard telling that many of the word-roots in Arabic have multiple and quite often contradictory meanings in western languages. This would mean that there is more room for turning one original poem into a variety of (probably quite different) translated poems, than when translating, say, an English poem into Swedish.
Enough complaining. Let us ignore 140 of the poems and focus on the two that I consider functional poems in English. The first one is # 60 from the first sequence:
With my delicious fruit
the way leading to me.
Your stupid birds
This is simple poetry at its best: brief, to the point and, in this case, a bit sarcastic, but also one of the very few poems in this book that feel genuinely felt. The second poem, with which I will end, is a three-liner which is plain beautiful:
What does a horse do
with a beautiful broken